A Philosopher's Blog

Science, Politics and Water Levels

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 6, 2012
Perception of Reality

Perception of Reality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In politics it is often claimed that perception is reality. The basic idea is that politicians and their minions can shape the perception of people and thus define what they take to be reality. A quick look at the political landscape in most countries shows that politicians and their minions are rather good at this sort of thing.

In some cases, the idea that the shaped perceptions are the reality has some appeal. After all, some matters are such that whatever people think is thus correct. A non-controversial example of this is etiquette: what people think about manners determines what is polite or rude. As might be imagined, things get a bit more controversial when it comes to matters of value, such as ethics. While it can be argued that ethics are merely a matter of perception (that is, what people think is bad is bad because they think it is so), this is not something that can simply be assumed. Not surprisingly, politics often involves battles of value and the various sides attempt to define and redefine the perceived “reality” of  particular values.

However, when it comes to physical reality, it would seem absurd to say that perception is reality and it would seem rather odd to try to impose on reality through laws. After all, reality is reality and this can be easily and painfully tested.  As philosophers and scientists see it, we should generally endeavor to make sure that our perceptions are matching reality rather than assuming that what we believe is the reality because we believe it. Rational people also endeavor to make decisions based on reality rather than attempting to mentally re-define matters to suit what they would like. After all, insisting that something is not true because one does not want it to be true is the classic wishful thinking fallacy.

One unpleasant fact that people would general prefer not to be true is that the sea level is supposed to rise. In particular, a recent study for the NC Coastal Resources Commission predicted that the sea level in North Carolina would gradually rise by about one meter. Given the importance of coastal property to North Carolina it is no surprise that the Republicans in the state legislature sprang into action. What is surprising is the response:  Replacement House Bill 819 seems to make measuring the rise in sea level using the methods used by scientists against the law. A key bit of wording is that “these rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly. …” In short, scientists would be forbidden from extrapolating exponential (which seems necessary to account for the existing data) and would be required by law to extrapolate linearly and within the time limit set by the law.

This, to say the least, seems rather bizarre. To use an obvious analogy, it would be like addressing an oncoming storm by forbidding meteorologists from using certain data when making predictions. To use another analogy, it would also be like address a patient’s illness or injury by forbidding doctors from using certain data that would show that the patient is very ill or seriously injured.

This approach is also rather problematic on at least two grounds. One obvious concern is that this sort of approach seems rather Orwellian-that is, if reality does not suit the views of those in power, then the response will be a law aimed at redefining reality. This seems to be a clear form of willful and systematic deception which seems to be rather immoral.

A second obvious concern is that the approach does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, it makes its less likely that the problem will be solved by requiring that the data be re-calculated to show that there is not a problem.  This will clearly cause more harm than good, making it rather wrong-if only on utilitarian grounds. To use an obvious analogy, this would be morally comparable with responding to a predicted severe epidemic by insisting that the doctors change the tests so that the epidemic is no longer predicted to be severe.

It could, of course, be replied that the bill can be justified on utilitarian grounds, namely that changing the methodology so that the results are better would have more positive than negative consequences for the right people. The challenge is, obviously enough, showing that this is the case. While not impossible in principle, it does seem unlikely.

Another possible reply is that the scientists who conducted the initial study are in error and they have been using the wrong method. The bill, it could be contended, does not seek to change things so the data looks better. Rather, the bill is aimed at ensuring that the science is being done properly. It is presumably merely a matter of coincidence that the redefined data would be in accord with what certain people want others to believe (and perhaps wish to believe themselves).  This is, of course, a matter that would need to be settled by those who are experts in the relevant fields-that is, a matter best addressed by scientists rather than politicians. Naturally, if the majority of experts agree that this  new methodology is correct and the other usual conditions for an argument from authority are met, then the new methodology should be accepted. However, to accept that the methodology should be changed merely because a bill says so would be poor reasoning indeed.

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13 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on June 6, 2012 at 9:09 am

    “What is surprising is the response: Replacement House Bill 819 seems to make measuring the rise in sea level using the methods used by scientists against the law.”

    This controversy seems to be not about measurement, but about predicting future sea level rises. The question becomes to what extent modern science can reliably predict climate change, and there is great uncertainty as to whether the earth will warm 1 degree Celsius or 4 degrees Celsius. Obviously, if one believes the earth will warm 4 degrees in the next 100 years that will produce a much greater sea level rise.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      In general, I’ll go with the scientists over the politicians. While some scientists do fiddle with data (or worse), this is typically a career ending move.

      Climate change can, of course, be disputed. However, this seems best handled by assessing the information rationally rather than imposing a law to restrict the allowed data and methods.

      In any case, we’ll get to see who has it right. My house is on a hill and inland, so I should be okay. Just need to get a boat. :)

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 6, 2012 at 11:29 am

    “Sometimes we see what we want to see, or what we’re told to see.”

    “A new law in Pennsylvania has doctors nervous. – The law grants physicians access to information about trade-secret chemicals used in natural gas drilling [read: fracking]. Doctors say they need to know what’s in those formulas in order to treat patients who may have been exposed to the chemicals. But the new law also says that doctors can’t tell anyone else — not even other doctors — what’s in those formulas. It’s being called the “doctor gag rule.”

    See: http://www.npr.org/2012/05/17/152268501/pennsylvania-doctors-worry-over-fracking-gag-rule

    “A philosopher’s view of the world…assuming it exists…when it comes to physical reality, it would seem absurd to say that perception is reality and it would seem rather odd to try to impose on reality through laws. After all, reality is reality and this can be easily and painfully tested.”

    “Speaking the truth about 9/11 is rude; poor etiquette.”

    “If reality does not suit the views of those in power, then the response will be a law aimed at redefining reality. So much the worse for reality, and the powerless.”

    “You are a suspected terrorist, drug trafficker, mafia kingpin; therefore you no longer have any constitutional protections. We call this: “new tools for law enforcement”.

    Epistemological Suicide: “That which the government tells me is the truth about 9/11 is my own perceived reality of that event. To question 9/11 would be to question the world itself, as I understand it to be.”

    Vince’s perception of reality: WCBS 2 NEWS – WTC 7 demolition on 9/11: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VHZf9uyIJk

    “Reasonable people could conclude the world exists, and that on 9/11, since one building was pre-wired for controlled demolition, that all three buildings were pre-wired for controlled demolition.”

    “A ‘conspiracy theory’ is, by definition: ‘unprovable’.”

    Math, science, and engineering tell us: “A modern 47 story steel building does not collapse, at virtually free-fall speed, due to small fires. Neither do 100+ story buildings disintegrate from the top down due to airplanes strikes and fires.”

    See: AE 911 Truth – “Explosive Evidence: Experts Speak Out” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YW6mJOqRDI4

    “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” ~ George Orwell

  3. freeseekers said, on June 7, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    If perception determines reality, than what determines perception?
    But you are assuming that there is an objective reality that can be perceived?
    You say you are a philosopher no?
    Tell me, how can something be called “Real” without being Perceived to be? I adhere to the belief of a single unbelievable(in finite terms) reality. Even so, I must say that Perception is necessary to be “easy and Painful”. Without a perception of sensory experience, there could be no confirmation of any material/objective reality, or am I mistaken?
    “I think, therefore I am” as Descartes said. Before the perception there is no thought, there is no thought there is no existence. If this is not agreeable, than surely you must agree that with out conscious expression and perception, nothing can be Said or Sensed to Be. With this simple fundamental logic I would say that perception does not determine, but rather IS, Reality, or at least the source of that which we conceive of and express as Reality. With this in mind I would say that pure perception is Universal reality, and that conceptions and further removed expressions, become increasingly disconnected from pure perceptual reality. Perception leads to Conception leads to expression, this is the order of the Creation of Reality. I am suggesting that even material needs to be perceived before it can be called Reality.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 8, 2012 at 9:46 am

      I’m inclined to steal a bit from Kant here. What I experience seems best explained by a blend of external reality and how my perceptual and conceptual apparatus processes the sensory input. Naturally, I could be wrong about all this. After all, there are arguments for direct (naive) realism, representational realism, phenomenology, pantheism and so on. In short, the available evidence is compatible with a wide variety of possible explanations.

      I do assume there is an objective reality that can be perceived. I assume that you are part of that reality-if not, I am presumably just replying to myself and we can have no dispute…because you do not exist.

      As far as something being real without being perceived, it certainly makes sense to say that there are things that exist beyond our perceptual range. For example, the best physics of our time posits numerous entities that we do not perceive (dark matter, subatomic particles, parallel dimensions, and so on). Unless, of course, you want to broadly construe “perceive” to include being put forth in a theory. I can also imagine the existence of things that I, as a human, could not perceive or even understand. But, of course, I read way too much Lovecraft and other sci-fi/horror.

      Naturally, one could be an old school verificationist or hard core empiricist and require that all claims ultimately trace back to a perception in order for them to be true. That is a viable philosophical position, although it does have an abundance of problems (making it no different from other philosophical views).

  4. freeseekers said, on June 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I am pleased with your reply. Thank you.
    Kant..I must say I hold closer ties to Hume with empiricism. but what I am speaking of is an undefinable hybrid, of many of the “Old school” and even classical Ideas, mixed with basic observations through a quiet mind. “direct (naive) realism,” I think this could describe what I am saying sort of, plus I am young and naive. But like you said All theories have flaws and holes, with this I agree. Which supports what I am saying, that no description can completely describe the Nature of reality, but Silence…..Silence can. It may be the only way to Be, with reality,for by what I’m saying is even to “perceive” It is to Change it. Quantum Physics even acknowledges that consciously attentive focus can change the pattern of “physical” particles. What I am saying does not necessarily disagree with any particular theories of philosophy to psychology, or any other “ology”. There is a commonality, the essence of Study comes before the study. What I’m trying to indicate is that there is something which precedes all “conscious perception” Our words, thoughts, and Ideas begin in our minds through the manipulation of conscious “particles” I’m saying that We Are Real but we cannot “know” what is real, simply because the act of “knowing” involves Physical manipulation of cerebral cortex “fibers” in your physical brain, but that the physical is only a fraction of the spectrum. Exactly like visible light, our conscious spectrum is limited. maybe we can move up and down, but likely can only focus on a single area at one time. Because of this we can disagree, but only consciously. Which is a very small area of Conscious Frequency. I do not know how a radio or television works other than reflecting luminous energy beams but I know it is similar to the brain. so its real, but so is what you watch on TV, to an extent… These are only my thoughts though of course.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      I’m actually skeptical of the notion that the observer has an impact on such things (like Schrodinger, I think the cat is reductio of the theory).

      There is, as you note, the classic problem of how much the instruments and observers distort the data-that is, what is real and what is what I add? That can be sorted to a degree by determining as much as possible what the observer adds-but this creates an infinite regress (as each observation has its own distortion). Only an omniscient observer (such as God) would perceive everything as it is.

      • freeseekers said, on June 9, 2012 at 5:13 pm

        Thank you again for a wonderful response.Your ability of logical analysis is impressive. I cannot argue about the infinite regression of the purity of observation,(thereby the disintegration of the original essence through numerous expression, like the “telephone” effect.) And I agree completely that only an omniscient observer can perceive as it it. God, yes, but also I think this is the Ideal represented by Christ(the union of God Man) or the Buddha. This pure observation/practice seems to be the goal, or perhaps the Ideal of Zen, that is if can even be called an “ideal” or “goal”. This is an Ideal called by some “Satori”, which I also equate to Heaven, and Nirvana, respective to their cultural differences.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm

          Classical Buddhism is interesting in regards to reality and the self. On this view, reality is the world of illusion and there is no self. There is a short piece about the no-self doctrine.

          YOUR MAJESTY, I AM CALLED Nagasena; my fellow-priests, your . majesty, address me as Nagasena: but whether parents give one the name Nagasena, or Surasena, or Virasena, or Sihasena, it is, nevertheless, your majesty, but a way of count¬ing, a term, an appellation, a convenient designa¬tion, a mere name, this Nagasena; for there is no Self here to be found.” .. .
          “Bhante Nagasena, if there is no Self to be found, who is it then furnishes you priests with the priestly requisites-robes, food, bedding, and medicine, the reliance of the sick? who is it makes use of the same? who is it keeps the precepts? who
          is it applies himself to meditation? … who is it commits immorality? who is it tells lies? …
          In that case, there is no merit; there is no de¬merit; there is no one who does or causes to be done meritorious or demeritorious deeds; neither good nor evil deeds can have any fruit or result. Bhante Nagasena, neither is he a murderer who kills a priest, nor can you priests, bhante Nagasena, have any teacher, preceptor, or ordination. When you say, `My fellow-priests, your majesty, address me as Nagasena,’ what then is this Nagasena? Pray, bhante, is the hair of the head Nagasena?”
          “Nay, verily, your majesty.”
          “Is the hair of the body Nagasena?
          “Nay, verily, your majesty.”
          “Arc nails … teeth … skin … flesh … sinew
          … bones … marrow of the bones … kidneys . .
          heart … liver … blood … sweat … fat . .
          tears … saliva … snot … urine … brain of the,
          head Nagasena?”
          “Nay, verily, your majesty.”
          “Is now, bhante, form Nagasena?” “Nay, verily, your majesty.” “Is sensation Nagasena?” “Is consciousness Nagasena?”
          “Nay, verily, your majesty.”
          “Are, then, bhante, form, sensation, perception,
          the predispositions, and consciousness unitedly
          Nagasena?”
          “Nay, verily, your majesty.”
          “Is it, then, bhante, something besides form,
          sensation, perception, the predispositions, and con¬
          sciousness, which is Nagasena?”
          “Nay, verily, your majesty.”
          “Bhante, although I question you very closely, I
          fail to discover any Nagasena. Verily, now, bhante,
          Nagasena is a mere empty sound. What Nagasena
          is there here? Bhante, you speak a falsehood, a lie: there is no Nagasena.” .. .
          “How, bhante Nagasena, does rebirth take place without anything transmigrating? Give an illus¬tration.”
          “Suppose, your majesty, a man were to light a light from another light; pray, would the one light have passed over [transmigrated] to the other light?”
          “Nay, verily, bhante.”
          “In exactly the same way, your majesty, does re¬
          birth take place without anything transmigrating.” “Give another illustration.”
          “Do you remember, your majesty, having learnt,
          when you were a boy, some verse or other from
          your professor of poetry? … did the verse pass over
          [transmigrate] to you from your teacher?”
          “Nay, verily, bhante.”
          “In exactly the same way, your majesty, does re¬
          birth take place without anything transmigrating.” “You are an able man, bhante Nagasena.”

          • freeseekers said, on June 11, 2012 at 1:11 am

            Lovely! Thank you for taking the time for this excellent reply my friend. I see this as a story illustrating the infinite nature of question and answer; the endless (k)not. Have you heard of Shunryu Suzuki, dictated by on of his students in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind? Zen is considered a branch of Buddhism, and often seen as a union of Indian Buddhism with Chinese Taoism( a natural mixture which occurred during the spread of Ideas from northern India, across China, to Japan). But according to Suzuki, a life long practitioner of Zen “we just sit…we may read the doctrines, but are not encouraged to believe what they say.” This is a paraphrase from his collection of informal discussions regarding the nature of “Zen”, but it displays to me one of its most intriguing aspects. Zen seems to embody the enigmatic concept of believing in Non-belief, or Mastering, Beginner-hood, or one could even say Living to die(the enigma of life itself). It is true that no adequate description can be given of the self, and to try to do so therefore is folly, which is one message I see in the piece of the “no-self.” Suzuki says in on passage “when I sit, the whole universe sits with me.” Which I think is indicating the same Idea of the “no-self”(or no distinction between myself and the universe). It is this Idea I was trying to describe in my own words, as that which precedes thought and sensation (even of one’s own existence). Dr. Zaener called it per-biological unity, and to some degree i agree with this description.
            Im not very familiar with Classical Buddhism, but a famous Zen quote and one of my favorite sayings of all time: “If you see the Buddha…Kill the Buddha!” I find it hilarious, but also profoundly informative. Many messages from this Idea of “killing the Buddha” come to mind: First of all, “to Kill”; can also mean to embody (which is also seen in Christianity with the ritualized cannibalism of Christ) only very recently in modern society have we made profound distinction between killing and eating, in traditional cultures these to ideas were rarely though of as separate. So to kill the Buddha could be interpreted as “Be the Buddha”. Secondly referring again to Christianity, there is the Idea of “Idol” worship which may be indicated by “seeing the Buddha”, and therefore you must Kill the Idol, and remove the image from your mind. This Idea can be expanded into my third point. Buddhism and many Eastern traditions(as I’m sure you already know) speak of Non-attachment; to self, to things, to the world, to beliefs, and anything else of temporal nature. For the simple reasons that attachments cause suffering. Zen takes this practice of non-attachment farther than traditional Buddhists, so far as to remove any and, if even possible All (mental) attachments, the result of which appears, from the level of introspection as “no-self”, which I would translate as “no attachment” to Self. but even to use the word “Self” requires a level of attachment, or an Ideal which the word is attached to. Hence If you see the Buddha(or yourself!) kill him and free yourself from any attachments to him or his “idol”/Ideal image. This Idea of non-attachment can easily be translated or transmigrated(ha ha, joke) into “non-existence.” (especially when translated from ideogram to Latin-based language). But I do feel like existence is innate and self evident, but our speculations, and explanations of it( and even of ourselves) may be insignificant. I think that this is also a part of the “no-self” doctrine. I think this relates to Direct-realism? Either way Thank you very much for this bit of classical literature. I love the eastern classics, even though they usually just confuse me! but I think that is their intention?
            Thank you kindly,
            Trevor W G

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm

              The distinction between typical Western philosophy and typical eastern philosophy is rather interesting (assuming we are allowed to talk about “typical” in this context). In my ethics class, I start my section on virtue theory with Confucius and then go to Aristotle. Though both views are very similar (virtue is a mean, being virtuous makes one happy, society as a whole must play a role in virtue and so on) their approaches are quite different. Confucius does not actually argue for his claims while Aristotle argues for almost every single point.

              Zen Buddhism does aim at creating confusion as a means to the end of freeing the student. An interesting approach.

          • freeseekers said, on June 11, 2012 at 3:07 am

            Through the brief discourse we’ve shared, has provided me with new insight on what is a “Philosopher”. The art of philosophy, I think, could be called Mental Acrobatics. The Philosopher’s mind, like the acrobat/gymnast’s body must maintain a certain level of flexibility, strength, and dexterity to hold and take on many different positions, without getting stuck in any one in particular; without “cramping” up. I would say a good philosopher has exercised his mind to the point that he can “see” without the need to “believe”; to pontificate without being partial; to propose and present without needing to promote. Ive never talked to a “philosopher” other than my professor of philosophy,( a very strange man, who had no patience for my questions or insight.) To be honest I was skeptical as to whether or not true philosophers actually existed anymore, which prompted me to seek out one who claimed the title, namely You. So I offered you a “challenge” (I don’t think you saw it as much of a challenge though ha ha) and I have been humbled and delighted by your responses. By virtue of the above qualifications, I am convinced my friend… you ARE a True Philosopher :) Ha ha, I’m sure YOU already know that! and as if MY opinion even matters lol! (rarely stops me from giving it though). Anyway I may be assuming too much too soon but whatever.

            Thank you again Mr. LaBossiere.

            p.s. Flattery is not my intent, my intent is to express gratitude, for your serious responses and humility, for doubting your status as “philosopher” :)

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

              I’m just a guy from Maine. :) I would say that my years of running have rather helped with being something of a classic philosopher-distance running tends to teach patience and humility and provides a clear sense of a person’s limits. So, when I approach philosophy, I do so in a similar manner-always remembering how it was for me when I began and always considering that I could be wrong.


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